Tuesday, May 19, 2020



As a poet myself, I teach poetry with the aim of imprinting admirable poems in my writing students' memories. I imagine my now young students (ages 8-17), as adults, looking through their old writing exercises from "the good old days in Mrs. Lipson's writing class," recalling vividly the poems we discussed and marveling at their old writings prompted by those deeply studied poems. The depth of most lessons depends upon a balance of theoretical analysis and practical application; and the more modalities of learning that we engage, the more memorable each lesson will be. I apply those educational strategies as I teach writing and poetry, hand-in-hand, to develop critical thinking, an appreciation of the power of words, academic writing skills, and creative writing abilities in a variety of genres. 

My teenage writing students recently studied a thought-provoking, metaphorical poem, “Tuesday 9 AM,” by Denver Butson, which I found in an anthology of contemporary poems titled Poetry 180(I highly recommend that book, full of excellent poems that I regularly use as prompts--just click on the title to go buy it at Barnes & Noble online). The poem takes place at a bus stop, where three people stand together, yet poignantly alone due to their self-isolating emotional states, depicted by rich metaphorical imagery.


My students wrote academic-style analyses of Butson's poem, based on my guidelines to: a) establish a theme, b) illustrate that theme with quotations, c) explain how the quotations support the theme, d) interpret the implications “between the lines,” and e) offer an overall “take-away” message from this poem. The quotations had to be set up in context, for a reader—like you—who might never have read Butson’s poem, and each line had to build upon the one preceding it. Below is an exemplary analysis by an insightful eighth-grader named Christopher.


In the poem “Tuesday 9:00 AM,” by Denver Butson, the author describes three different people at a bus station, engulfed in their own worries and emotions. He begins by describing a man who is on fire, “Flames are peeking out from beneath his collar and cuffs.” The flames represent an intense feeling of anger or annoyance, rather than literal flames which could kill someone. The author continues by describing a woman who “wants to mention...that he is burning,” but does not because “she is drowning.” The second woman’s “drowning” is not in water, but rather in sorrow. By not commenting on the man’s flames, it shows that she is too worried about her own emotions, despite having the “water” to put out his “fire.” Moreover, whereas the first man’s anger was just “peeking out,” the woman’s sorrow is uncontrollable, “in her mouth and ears, in her eyes.” The last person waiting at the bus stop is another woman who is “freezing to death.” This person is frozen by self-consciousness and unsure of what to do. While she tries to melt her ice from the fiery man, her shy nature causes her to not seek help for herself. Furthermore, even though she wants to talk to the woman who is drowning, she is scared of potential judgment or retaliation, dissuading her from helping others. Overall, the author conveys the message that sometimes the help we need is right next to us, and it simply requires leaving one’s comfort zone.

The next part of my lesson required a creative response, in the form of either their own metaphorical poem about social interactions, or a fictional story that turned Butson’s poem into a short story, bringing each character to life and showing the reluctant or thwarted interactions between them. The students could change the outcome of Butson’s bus stop scene, if they chose to empower the self-limiting characters. Here is Christopher’s imaginative, moving story:


Before the Bus Arrives

by Christopher W.


            As he was waiting at the bus stop, skimming the newspaper, he saw something that caught his eye. The headline read, “Man Arrested For Animal Abuse.” It began, “Florida man, age 27, was arrested for beating two stray dogs to death. On Monday, April 6th, Mr. Frank live streamed himself using a large stick to strike two stray dogs.” The man reading the newspaper was the owner of a dog, and upon reading these sentences, his blood began to boil. He would never dream of hurting his dog, but he still had nightmares of the time he left his favorite chocolate lying around. 

            Now the woman waiting beside him wouldn’t stop crying. The occasional whimper and moan escaped from her mouth, but she hastily swallowed them down. In fact, she was just fine mere minutes ago when she first sat down. She didn’t start until she checked a text message on her phone. 

            And to his further dismay, the girl sitting on the other side of him kept looking like she wanted to ask him something, only to look away when he turned toward her. Finally, tired of getting her sideways glances, he said, “Did you need something?”

            The girl, surprised at first, responded, “Well actually, I wanted a look at your newspaper. You see, I wrote a piece for that publisher and I wanted to see if they had published it yet.”

            Intrigued, he asked, “What did you write about?” 

            Eagerly, she began to talk about her studies, and as she was talking, it was almost as if she “melted” her frozen shell, a shell keeping her from speaking up.  In fact, she was talking so fast, he didn’t know if she was breathing. After he handed the newspaper to the girl, she whispered, “The woman over there looks awfully sorrowful. I wonder what happened.”

            Although he was still angry, he felt keen to help. He turned to the crying woman beside him and asked, “Excuse me miss, I couldn’t help but notice you were in distress.  Is there anything I could do to help you?”  

            “I’m so sorry to bother you. My gran was in critical condition and I was just sent the news that she has passed. Thanks for asking.” As she finished speaking, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a bar of chocolate and passed it to him. “Here, I’m sure I must have been a nuisance crying so loud. Take this as an apology.” 

            Surprised, but grateful, he accepted the token of apology. And as the bus arrived, all three of them boarded, feeling significantly better. 


            I have shared this prompt and this student's writings to show, not tell, how teachers and students can explore literature not just by reacting to the words on the page, but also by using those words as a springboard for creating. Have you noticed that "reacting" and "creating" are almost the same words, slightly scrambled?  The profound poems that some of the students wrote for this assignment will certainly find their way into another of my blog posts. I believe that this lesson upheld my long-time motto: “Inspiring awe for words and awesome writing.”

Monday, May 11, 2020

Using Students' Works To Prompt Other Students' Writings

May 7, 2020

The following poem, by my student William MacLeod, uses a metaphor to make a statement about people. Write an E-IEI-O analysis of his poem. Then write your own metaphorical poem to represent a personality.



by William MacLeod


“I won’t leave my garden,”

Says a worm.

“There is plenty of dirt here.

Out there are birds.

Out there are moles.

Everything is alright in my garden.

Why would I leave?”



In response to the prompt above, two of my fifth-grade private writing students, Ethan and Lino, wrote these essay-style paragraphs, using my E-IEI-O format, to analyze William’s poem:


The poem “The Worm,” by William MacLeod, uses the worm to describe a person who loves to stay at home. The worm says, “Why should I leave?” because he is an insect who likes to stay out of danger, in a safe place, which in this case is his home, the garden. In today’s situation, the moles and the birds could be the coronavirus who comes to hunt us down, and the only place where we are safe is in our homes. In conclusion, the poem “The Worm” teaches us that we should stay home during this time of danger, so we can be safe and healthy.


*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

The poem “THE WORM,” by William MacLeod uses the metaphorical image of a complacent worm to show the idea of someone who does not want to leave their comfort zone. The last line of this poem is “‘Why would I leave?’” These words show the reader that the worm is happy with what he has and does not want to explore the unknown. The reason William MacLeod used a worm to explain the behavior of staying in your comfort zone is because worms are known to stay underground, safe from all of the danger around them. The worm represents people who do not like to take risks and suggests that staying safe is more important than adventure.


Using students’ works to prompt writing by other students has served as a very effective motivational tool in my extracurricular writing program. My students see admirable and relatable writing by peers, as role models, and they immediately want to display their own understanding of those words. They also aim to be the next featured young author to inspire fellow students. Maybe once the fifth-grade literary analysts do the second part of the original prompt, which asks them to write their own poems as homework, I will have more excellent poems to motivate other young writers!